On the desk, my mother’s clock sits—

& when it’s too quiet

each tick is another shift

between her evanescent present

& her elusive past—

just like some metaphors

are too loud

& never leave.



We used to skim impatient days

through insistent screens,

scream above the din

to be heard, to be seen

running red-eyed seekers,

ritually sacrificing sleep,

needing to believe

our better selves stood

just ahead, salvation

waiting only for time to stop.


Today we shed viral fears

endemic to our nation,

needing to believe

our better selves stand

just ahead, salvation

waiting only for time to start.

Easter Vigil

Yesterday I walked in the rare calm of an Iowa spring as the sunlight salvaged a day otherwise consigned to clouds.

I passed, with gentle acknowledgment, blackened fields—intentionally burned to allow for new growth of the restored native grass. A prescribed burn, a temporary smudge, our collective lull.

I passed, with serendipitous timing, a susurration of dead leaves cleaving to a tree—a subtle symphony as just enough early evening breeze rustled just enough tenacious leaves at just the right time.

I passed, with appropriate physical distance, a student and her family in our new “hallway”—the walking path perpendicular (perhaps; I am not a math teacher) to our empty high school building. This passing period was school in its best form: a smile, a wave, a communion. A small act of grace in the sacramental sunshine of an Easter Vigil. 

Luci Tapahonso said it best:

“I continue. My days: an undercurrent of fear,

                             an outpouring of love,

                             a whispered chant of loneliness.”

The Unwinding

Those blue skies lie this morning

 but I am thankful for them nonetheless. 

The north wind tells a truer tale 

& the branches of the tree outside my bedroom window 

bend to its time-worn words. 

In the warming soil intervals of green push through.


I live so lightly in my mild discomfort,

toiling only to stitch waking hours together

while the world falls apart.


My mother forgets what day it is

& I gently absolve both of us

by reminding her this is how

we live now, our stopping cues

reduced to light & dark & breath.

Songs To Learn & Sing

I wrote the original version of this to share with my freshmen back in January as part of a beginning-of-the-semester writing assignment. I returned to it today.

My Now In Five Songs (as written today, March 23, 2020):

“Turning Into Tiny Particles . . . Floating Through Empty Space” by Hammock (2013):

The title alone describes life in the After, as so much of what we had tethered our lives to is now gone or paused—for better and for worse. Hammock is another of the instrumental bands I’ve listened to often in the past few years. Their album Mysterium is extraordinary, an extended elegy and meditation on grief (Also: do read Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter). How we live now in these inbetween days. 

“Movies” by Hothouse Flowers (1990): 

This abundance of time has me returning to the past: watching the Phillies/Cubs 23-22 epic from 1979, the one nine-year-old me caught the final few innings of after school on WGN; reading a Hardy Boys hardcover I pulled from my storage room; listening to music from inflection points in my life. 1989-90 was one such inflection point, living as a student in Ireland. Hothouse Flowers broke big during this period; I listened to a live concert of theirs the night before I flew back to the United States. “Movies” is from their second album, Home (just now seeing how on-the-nose that album title is). A song about when loneliness was a choice, sometimes a necessary one. “Do the soft things hurt you?” remains a marker line for how, where, and with whom we find solace.

“If I Could Name Any Name” by Roddy Woomble (2006):

I watched Roddy Woomble livestream some poetry from the Scottish wilds a few days ago (he kept losing signal). The lead singer of Idlewild, Woomble released his magisterial Scottish folk album My Secret Is My Silence in the summer of 2006. This is my favorite track on the album, though the competition for that honor is fierce indeed. Woomble himself has described this as an album about escape, and I think we can all relate right now. “And time will stop and start again/You’re leaving my heart again.” Only now, in the stoppage of time, I find my heart filling. And time will start again.

“circle the drain” by Soccer Mommy (2020): 

I have to thank my former student Miles Millard for turning me on to Soccer Mommy (the stage name of Sophia Regina Allison). Despite the negative connotations of the title and the bleakness of most of the lyrics, the melancholy honesty of this song is giving me hope. And that guitar part could be a Cure song, something I thought even before listening to the Song Exploder podcast (highly recommended) episode about this song. We will build on what came before.

“Don’t Be Scared, I Love You”—Yawny Yawn version (2019):

Here I have to thank the Spotify algorithm for pointing me to this song last summer.

Need a bit of an ugly cry before you return to being strong for all those you are being strong for? This song can help with that. The stark piano and the wash of electric backsplash all fades for the words we need: Don’t be scared, I love you.

My Now In Five Songs (as originally written in mid-January):

“It Hurts” by Graveyard Club (2019): Have you watched every season of Stranger Things? Of course you have. Did you binge the latest season the day it was released, July 4th? I did. Graveyard Club has a sound reminiscent of the ‘80s and this song should have been on the soundtrack to the latest season. The young boys in Stranger Things are essentially the same age in the year each season occurs as I was, and I was equally nerdy. So this song connects my “now” to my “then,” just as watching Stranger Things does.

“Be More Kind” by Frank Turner (2019): The world feels like a hard and cruel place lately, both on a personal and a national/global level. Turner’s song, with its quiet strumming and insistent strings, provides an antidote to this feeling. I wish we didn’t need to listen to it; I wish I didn’t need to listen to it.

“21 Days” by Brian Fallon (2020): Talk about “now”: this song was just released on Friday, and I’ve already listened to it enough times  to memorize the lyrics as I worked on school stuff over our frozen long weekend. Brian Fallon was the lead singer of a great band called The Gaslight Anthem and I have been a big fan of his solo work. Winter is a season of sadness and this is a SAD song. Are we sad because we listen to sad songs or do we listen to sad songs because we’re sad?

“The Modern Leper” by Julien Baker (2019): This is a cover of a song by the Scottish group Frightened Rabbit. Frightened Rabbit is the one band who has meant as much to me as an adult as the bands of my youth (music nearly always feels more insistent and meaningful when we are young). After the suicide of their lead singer in 2018, the band put together the tribute album Tiny Changes, with the proceeds going to mental health services. I could have put any number of songs by Frightened Rabbit on either My Now or My Then but I’m not sure I’m up to that in the harsh light of winter.

“Strange Vessels” by Caoimhin O’ Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett (2019): I never used to listen to instrumental music; I always wanted lyrics (I mean, I am an English teacher). But lately, as we become more polluted by noise then ever, I often find myself seeking more instrumental music, especially as I write. Great in front of the fireplace music as well. Caoimhin O’ Raghallaigh is from Ireland and plays a ten-string fiddle; here the pianist Thomas Bartlett joins him.

My Then in Five Songs:

“Here’s Where The Story Ends” by The Sundays (1990): This song is forever twenty-year-old me living in a house in Maynooth, Ireland, with four other Notre Dame students and attending classes at St. Patrick’s College. Listening to a cheap stereo in our always freezing rented house, hearing this song played by Dave Fanning, whose radio show we listened to almost every night. This song is wool sweaters and walking in the constant rain.

“In Between Days” by The Cure (1985): I was always an emo kid at heart (TikTok did not invent e-boys), and my love of The Cure stands as evidence for this. This was a much poppier Cure, though still with that bite of melancholy. I’m fifteen, watching the trippy spinning kaleidoscopic video, wishing I lived somewhere “cooler.” Wishing I was someone “cooler.” Not realizing, because how could you at fifteen, how many of our days are “in between days.”

“White Wedding—Pt. 1” by Billy Idol (1982): That sludgy bass line, that intentional vocal slurring, the ever-present black leather jacket, spiky hair, and sneer—Billy Idol portrayed the gutter punk I never was but sometimes thought I wanted to be. Learning that he chose his name from a school teacher who wrote to his parents complaining that “William is idle” also connected with the would-be English teacher in me.

“Centerfold” by The J. Geils Band (1981): When I was eleven years old, Carroll had a video game arcade downtown. My parents didn’t think I was old enough to go there and play games by myself (even then, video games were considered to be a terrible influence on the youth). But I snuck in there one time, and this song was playing. The lyrics of the song and the presence of so many older teens convinced me my parents were right and I left soon thereafter. 

“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce (1974): My parents didn’t listen to music much but they had a few albums (yes, vinyl). Among them were several by Jim Croce, including his greatest hits album. I knew every word to this song (including “damn,” which seemed so BAD back then). It’s a story song, completely on brand with my lifelong love of stories in every form (written, filmed, sung).

The Distance Between Us

Things grow back. The squirrels reminded me of that yesterday as I watched them scamper in the three sugar maples standing sentry in my front yard. Two springs ago I had the maples trimmed as part of an ongoing effort to save my front yard from erosion (living at the bottom of a hill, turns out y really does equal mx+b). But the soft thumps yesterday as I read in the front room signaled that the maple branches again reached close enough to my roof for the squirrels to use my roof as a transit hub. (Either that or the squirrels were throwing nuts on my roof, taunting me in my quarantine. If this is true, squirrels, and you are reading this now: YOU DON’T WANT THIS SMOKE! I have a scary amount of unstructured time and epic levels of stress.)

Observation shows the following pattern: squirrels shift among the three maples freely (a word to the original planters of said maples: “Canopy” is a lovely word and a lovely concept, but I refer you to the first two words of this post); squirrels occasionally fling themselves from the center maple onto the edge of the roof (at which point I lose sight of them but I imagine the squirrels do some sort of Fortnite celebratory dance, or perhaps the bunny hug to honor the elderly trees); squirrels shimmy up the peaked roof like soldiers seeking high ground. I mean, the trees were technically even higher ground, but squirrels are, historically, poor military tacticians.

This lack of tactical acumen quickly evidences itself as the squirrels cede the higher ground and scramble down the other side of the roof, pausing above my bedroom to further taunt me unseen, no doubt making rude gestures (I am far too mature to stoop to mentioning squirrels and nuts here). From this point, the squirrels can, and do, tightwire across the edge of the porch fence to reach the pergola, from which they can jump into the branches of my backyard trees, where more shenaniganizing occurs.

{I know what you are thinking at this point: You have a pergola AND a fence? What kind of libertine are you?}

These shenanigans are in service of a supply chain allowing the squirrels to transport themselves and their cargo from the backyard trees to the trees in my front yard without touching the ground. 

These squirrels are creative in not letting distance defeat them—we can be too.


“Senioritis” was supposed to be the disease you worried about as the calendar turned to spring.

“Social distancing” was supposed to wait until summer when you ghosted fake friends and cried with real ones.

Spring was meant to be a giddy and nostalgic checklist of “lasts”: Last prom, last quarter of high school, last time to fill out a tournament bracket and sneak views of the early games in class. Now you wonder if you’ve seen the last of high school and worry if you’ll be the first class to graduate without a commencement.

The only “first” should have been not having to take the state tests and lording over that fact to all the other students. The unknown was supposed to wait until summer dreams met autumn reality, not stare you in the face every waking moment.

You know your worries and frustrations pale in comparison with what so many are dealing with around the nation and the world—but this was supposed to be your time, your season, your spotlight.

Full disclosure: I am often sick of seniors by the time your last day of class rolls around in May (in the same lovingly exasperated way many of you are no doubt sick of me).

This year I pray that’s the only sickness any of us have to deal with and I hope we can be sick of each other together.

Stay Home

I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

I will be standing in the woods
where the old trees
move only with the wind
and then with gravity.
In the stillness of the trees
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

–Wendell Berry


Severe even before it became surreal, the heft of this semester bent me fore and aft. All I asked for was a day and now the days stretch in front of me, the labor of my field on hiatus.

“How Does Life Live?”

Our new creative writing class watched the video “poem” found here, a mini-documentary by Kelly O’Brien. We wrote answers to some of the questions asked by O’Brien’s daughter and we wrote our own question poems. Below are some of our efforts.

My answer to “Can girls be robots?”:

Girls CAN be robots because girls can be anything they want to be. They can be scientists and astronauts and dancers and doctors and teachers and writers and, yes, robots. Girls can even be combinations of these: You can be a dancing robot or an astronaut robot or a dancing astronaut. We can all be more than one thing. We can choose who to be; we can choose to be versions of ourselves.

But boys are often robots because they don’t think they have a choice. They think they cannot show emotions or other boys (and some girls) will make fun of them. They think they can only love facts and not people. They think because they are boys they must not cry or be silly or be sad or be quiet. They think they have to be robots even when they want so badly to choose to be human. They don’t think they can be that version of themselves.

So, yes, girls can robots, but they should never only be robots. Because none of us should only be robots.

Emersyn’s answer to “Why don’t worms have faces?”:

For all we know, worms could have a face. Just because it doesn’t like mine or yours, that doesn’t mean they don’t have one. All we know about faces is what we can see ourselves and what we already have. We as people think that if it’s not like us then it’s not there at all. So our face could be completely different from the face of a worm but that doesn’t stop the worm from having a face. Worms can have anything they want to have and who are we to stop them? We can’t just collectively decide they don’t have a face just because it’s not exactly like ours or what we know a face to look like.

Joe’s answer to “Why do you pick a flower and it dies?”:

Sometimes we want to keep pretty things, like flowers. When we take them from where they are growing, they will stay pretty for a while, but soon they die. There are some things that we can’t keep forever, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t admire them. When you leave a flower in the ground instead of picking it, it keeps growing and gets even prettier. So sometimes it’s better to leave something where it belongs, even if it means you don’t get to keep it. That way, you can remember how pretty it was, and even come back to see how it’s grown, and that can be even better than picking it.

Ben’s answer to “Why does a heart beat?”:

A: Well, our heart beats because it wants to keep us alive. No matter what we eat or what we do, what we choose or what we think, our heart will keep thumping for as long as we live. We don’t have a choice.
Now, why does it want to keep us alive? Some people believe there’s something it wants them to achieve and once when you do it’ll slow down and rest for a bit. Others think there’s something or someone they need to protect, that as long as there is any threat to anything they care about their heart will keep them alive until the danger has passed. I, however, think the heart only beats because it’s afraid. It’s afraid of what’ll happen when it stops.
I suppose if that is true, then we shouldn’t call it “our” heart. We don’t own it, we don’t control it, and it doesn’t control us. Who you are and what you want are completely separate of what a heart is and what it wants. Having both a purpose and a heart are necessary to keeping you alive, sure, but don’t ever try to confuse the two. Your heart will still beat no matter what dream you decide to follow. It’ll only end when you do.
That doesn’t mean the two of you can’t get along, however. If you try your best to keep your heart healthy by exercising and eating your fruits and vegetables, then it’ll try its best to keep you alive for as long as it can. Your heart will have what it wants, and you’ll have enough time to think about or even achieve what you want.
So, why does a heart beat? It beats because it wants to live. Now before I go I would like to ask you a question. No, it’s not one you have to answer now, but it is one I want you to think about. What will you beat for?

Vanessa’s answer to “Why doesn’t everyone know me?”:

When we are small and young like you, our whole family knows us. Mom, dad, sisters, brothers, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles. They know everything about you. They tell stories about you to their friends and then more people know you. The world is filled with billions and billions of people. You are just one of those billions of people. You have to make something of yourself. Nobody is known by everyone. There are some people who don’t know you and never will because in this really big world, we are just little people. Think of a beach full of sand. If you pick up a little speck of sand, that is us. When you put it back on the ground, that’s what we are like compared to people in the world. There are people down the street that you may never know, but one day they might know who you are. For people to know you, you have to put yourself out there and make yourself memorable. Being memorable doesn’t mean going famous for playing a sport or making a lot of money. Being memorable can mean making a change to the world, or doing something that you know can help other people. Sometimes it’s good to not be known by everyone. It can save yourself the struggle of being judged.

Bella’s Question Poem:

Why do you love me?

How big is 100?

Why can’t animals talk?

Why can’t I fly?

How come I like chocolate?

Why do birds eat worms?

Do bugs have feelings?

Why do we have to eat food?

How come I can’t have ice cream for breakfast?

What happens if the world stops?

Why did you smile?

Can you dance with me?

Why are you crying?

Why is she my friend?

What does love mean?

What is this song?

Why do we have to be nice?

Will you ever stop loving me?

What happens when our heart stops?

Can I live forever?

Why does food taste different?

Why is blue called blue?

How do mermaids breathe underwater?

What would you still want me if I looked different?

Are you okay mom?

Can we get a dog?

How many stars are there?

Why can’t we touch the sky?

What is her name?

How many people are there?

Why is he smoking?

What is time?

Why is her hair long?

Does she know me?

Why can I see myself in the mirror?

Where do we go when we die?


Dalton’s Question Poem:

Children are questions.

Every sentence they utter is

a question itself or

just down right questionable.

Who owns Earth?

What kind of tree is that?

Where do babies come from?

When do I get to be the mom?

Why can’t we eat candy every day?

How come a bird can fly and I can’t?

They are a sponge, wanting to absorb 

Every. Last. Drop.

How come you have a beard and I don’t?

Why does everyone walk on two feet?

When can we bake cookies?

Where did the sun go?

What do dogs say?

Who is God?

The questions seem to come from thin air. 

But then, one day it 


They are no longer askings questions

But rather you:

How did they grow up so fast?

Why didn’t you stop them?

When did they grow-up?

Where did the time go?

What do you do now?

Who are they?

Who am I?


Emma P.’s Question Poem:

Answers Wanted

Moms and dads are supposed 

to know the questions we

can not possibly begin to answer as kids:

Why do people die?

Where did I come from?

Why do I have to go to school?

Some are simple to answer,

some are not as simple:

When you die, who will I live with?

Why are you on your phone?

Why are some people so mean?

73 questions a day

a curious child asks,

hoping and hoping that this time,

they will get an answer that they understand.


what about the child 

whose questions

are never answered?


Brooke’s Question Poem:


why is grass green?

why is the sky blue?

where do babies come from?

why are people mean?

where did grandpa go?

why do cats meow?

why does daddy live with grandma now?

why do people go to jail?

how many butterflies are in the world?

what are drugs?

why do we call water “water”?

why does Alicia have no hair?

what are those pills?

can i be a princess?

why are you sad?

am i gonna be beautiful?

what is life?

how does life live?

Something You Should Know

My English 9 students and I wrote, for our first entry into poetry, versions of Clint Smith’s poem “Something You Should Know” (something else you should know is that you should read Smith’s poem). With their permission, I have provided some of the student work below.

Something You Should Know—James

Is that as a kid, I made a lot of jokes.

I talked the talk, I Seldom Stuffed the sock. 

Anything from your mother to that’s what she said, I talked and talked

But in the quiet I learned, 

Without the talk I’ve got no “walk”

Without the jokes I’ve got no “folks”

Which left me worried for the Curtains back,

To obsess over punchlines and sit in the dark, hoping like hell

that I’d have a hoot to hurl or a pun to present. That is why, even now,

I can need so Entirely to make you laugh, and why even now,

I am afraid to see myself in the silence of the spotlight,

Without a joke to tell, or a laugh to share, Exposed, In this silence.


Something You Should Know – MJ 

Is that as a kid, I was happy. 

I colored pictures 

of animals like lions, dogs, 

pandas, and elephants. 

I watched cartoons that continued 

to amaze me even after seeing them a thousand times.

Which left me dumbfounded by the thought that I had

to grow up, to be mature, to go to school, 

to dress myself, to be a big kid. 

Perhaps that is when I realized 

that I couldn’t be a kid forever. Perhaps 

that is why, even now, I can want so desperately 

to be a kid again, because I’m afraid 

of growing up, exposed, in the adult world. 


Something You Should Know–Elisha 

Is that as a kid, I was a tech intern.

I fixed Chromebooks

of students like middle schoolers, freshmen,

juniors, and seniors.

I watched students continue 

to crush their Chromebooks, crack their computer

screens, then complain about them.

Which left me upset at the students,

to intentionally break their computers that way, reflecting their attitude. 

Perhaps that is when I became so quick to judge people. Perhaps

that is why, even now, I can need to desperately

let things go, but am more afraid

of meeting myself, exposed, in His judgment.


Something You Should Know—Sophia

Is that as a kid, I wanted to be a paleontologist.

I  dug for dinosaurs

From the Jurassic, Devonian, Cretaceous, 

Mesozoic, and Cambrian periods

I watched as my hands continued

To pry objects from the ground, deftly dusting dirt from them

Examining the possible fossils,

Which left me disappointed when they were only rocks,

Ordinary pieces of earth that had never been full of life

And had never walked the ground that I now walk.

Perhaps that is when I first became wary of trusting.

Perhaps that is why, even now, I can want something

With all my being, but barely let myself hope

For fear of being let down.

Left vulnerable and exposed,

Wallowing in my own disappointment.


something you should know—Macy S.

is that as a kid I always wondered about the future

I imagined

where I would be

what I would be doing

where I would be going

 the past always gets me

which leaves me worried about the present

to be worryless

about what’s in front of me

worryful of what if

perhaps I should look

at what is in front of me

perhaps let go of worrying about the past and future

that is why, even now, I try to forget

and live in the exposed now version of me


Something You Should Know—Aubrie

Is that as a kid, I played with my siblings. 

I dressed the dolls

Of different varieties, baby dolls, Barbies, American Girls, 

and Polly Pockets.

I watched my brothers continue

 to run, jump, play, and pretend they were plummeting

to from a peak and pretend all again. 

Which left me sad that I couldn’t play, 

and upset I was alone for a few days.

To need my siblings there by my side.

Perhaps that is why they became my best friends. 

Perhaps that is why, even now, I need them so desperately, 

but am more afraid of meeting myself, exposed, without them.


Something You Should Know—Kennedy

is that as a kid, I decided to play basketball.

I didn’t understand the rules

of the game because I didn’t play any sports like volleyball, softball, 

soccer, or track

I watched the coach as he continued

to explain things like how to dribble, pass, and 

how to make a layup by hitting the corner of the box on the backboard,

which left me so scared because I didn’t think I could do it, 

to get the ball that high, to even get it into the net seemed impossible

to live her entire life trying to succeed at one easy task

to feel good enough. Perhaps that is when I became a person who 

tried to please everyone before my self. Perhaps 

that is why, even now, I can want so desperately 

to make sure everyone’s happy, but am more afraid 

of caring about myself, exposed, in this world.


Something You Should Know—Macy T

Is that as a kid, I loved strawberry shortcake.

I smelled the hair

of the toys like strawberry shortcake, orange blossom,

lemon meringue, and plum puddin.

I watched the peculiar purple pieman of porcupine peak continue

to steal strawberries and watch strawberry shortcake

To eavesdrop on the information of Strawberryland.

Which left me concerned that he was going

to ruin their plans, 

to take her strawberries for his own,

to feel evil. Perhaps that is when I become obsessed

with my strawberry shortcake pillowcase. Perhaps

that is why, even now, I can’t always trust people

even if they say they are on your side

of the fence, rejected, by their personality,

Exposed, in mine.


Something You Should Know—Emma K


is that as a kid, I wanted to play sports more than anything.

I watched games

that involved sports including basketball, volleyball, 

softball, and dance.

I watched the majority of teams continue

to immensely improve and impressively win

with the help of multiple good plays and mistakes made by the opposing team.

Which left me sympathetic for the other teams, 

who had to repeatedly find out what they did wrong, 

and realize that they may be unable to fix their mistakes, to be

embarrassed. Perhaps this is why I’m constantly afraid 

I’ll mess up and become embarrassed in front of my peers. Perhaps 

this is why, even now, I can want so desperately

to fix my mistakes and continue trying, but am more afraid

of meeting myself, exposed, in front of my peers.


Something You Should Know—Bryton

Is that as a kid, I liked building with Legos.

I built models

of big things like houses, ships, 

rockets, and airplanes.

I pretended to fly the airplane

across oceans, seas, continents, countries, and cities around

the world in search of new places.

Which left me in awe of exploration, 

to fly around all free that way, to get 

to live my entire life exploring the world 

to feel joy. Perhaps that is when I became fond

of exploring the woods. Perhaps

 that is why, even now, I can want so desperately 

to stay inside all day, but will eventually 

meet my previous self, exposed, in the smell of nature.